Pope Francis laicizes North Dakota priest after sexual assault guilty plea

By Daniel Payne

Pope Francis has ordered the laicization of a North Dakota priest who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman in that state.

Diocese of Fargo Bishop John Folda said in a statement this month that former priest Neil Pfeifer “received a dispensation from the clerical state (laicization) from Pope Francis” effective March 8.

Pfeifer himself “sought the dispensation after adult women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct,” Folda said in his statement.

“Mr. Pfeifer pleaded guilty on July 13, 2023, to a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault in Stutsman County,” the bishop said.

Laicization is the term for when a priest has been dismissed from the clerical state. An individual who is confirmed as a priest will always remain one, but laicization takes away his ability to licitly execute the functions of the priesthood, except in the extreme situation of encountering someone who is in immediate danger of death.

Someone who has lost the clerical state also no longer has the canonical right to be financially supported by the Church.

Often, a man who is laicized is also dispensed from the obligation of celibacy and permitted to marry, though this is not always the case, especially when someone has been involuntarily removed from the clerical state.

Folda in his statement noted that the decision to laicize a priest “is not made by the local diocese or bishop but is determined by the Holy See.”

“Laicization means that Mr. Pfeifer has been returned to the lay state and may no longer exercise priestly ministry,” the bishop said. “As a result, in accord with canon law, he may no longer celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or administer other sacraments.”

“Laicization does not invalidate sacraments that he previously administered,” the prelate added.

“When members of the clergy or others representing the Church abuse someone, they violate a sacred trust,” Folda said in his statement.

The diocese announced in 2021 that Pfiefer had been appointed the pastor of St. James Basilica in Jamestown, St. Margaret Mary in Buchanan, and St. Mathias in Windsor.

Pfeifer’s term at those parishes was to last for six years, until 2027.

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